French texts in Medieval Cambridge

Peterhouse and ‘The Moving Word’

A number of manuscripts from Peterhouse collections are currently on display in the Milstein Exhibition Centre at the University Library.

The Moving Word. French Medieval Manuscripts in Cambridge is the product of a collaboration between the AHRC project ‘Medieval Francophone Literary Culture Outside France’ and the University Library. Contributors include a group of graduate, PhD and post-doc students from the Department of French, the Department of Italian, the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, and the Faculty of English, directed by Professor Bill Burgwinkle and Dr Nicola Morato.

Here Dr Nicola Morato writes about the display and how the Peterhouse materials play a role in the structure of the exhibition.


Our research topic

The presence of medieval French manuscripts in Cambridge has been the subject of uninterrupted attention. The modern scientific approach to texts and manuscripts starts with the legendary visits of the philologist Paul Meyer (with the first one dating back to May-June 1871), and his decennial collaboration with Henry Bradshaw, one of the greatest University Librarians. Almost a century and a half later, thanks to a rich tradition of studies, we benefit from a more advanced and ever-broader bibliography and on precious catalogues and indices. Scholars essentially followed three paths of investigation: 1) the history of art, illuminations and decorations and the book history angle; 2) the history of archives, studying the formation of medieval Cambridge collections; and 3) in-depth studies of matters pertaining to individual texts or individual manuscripts.

It must be noted, however, that after Meyer, none of these three fields has primarily concentrated on French texts considered in their totality, and that there is currently no overarching study of medieval French culture in Cambridge. Without being able to address the question in its entirety, in organising and putting together The Moving Word we have tried to show the reasons and consequences of this double lacuna, and launch new long-term research work on these themes.

It is at this point that Peterhouse decisively steps out onto the stage. Its collection of manuscripts is, indeed, amongst the best for documenting the presence and role of French in the library collections of medieval Cambridge.


The Old Register

The Peterhouse collection has two key characteristics that render it just about unique in Cambridge: 1) most of it is preserved, given that of the 280 manuscripts in the catalogue published by M.R. James in 1899, more than 200 were already in the collection during the medieval period; 2) we can reconstruct its history thanks to ample documentation, in great part preserved in the archive of the College. We therefore find ourselves in an ideal documentary position to evaluate the eventual presence and influence of French on academic life and on the formation of the libraries.

From this point of view, the most extraordinary and perhaps the most valuable document is the Old Register of Peterhouse. In May 2013, Dr Roger Lovatt, the archivist of Peterhouse, kindly allowed me to view the Old Register and to take a few photographs. In the small archive consultation room, this voluminous manuscript produces a sort of historical vertigo: one immediately realises that it is practically inextricable from the College, just as a section of a building or an ancient foundation block.

Old Register of Peterhouse

Old Register of Peterhouse

The Old Register is a heterogeneous artifact with a materially composite structure: segments were added to segments in the course of centuries, and a variety of administrative hands follow one another, collaborate, integrate themselves, correct and contradict each other. Right afterwards, Roger then showed me the courts of Peterhouse where, in the midst of spaces defined by medieval buildings, stood a huge crane and construction materials. The Old Register represents and encapsulates moments in the history of the College, not unlike the various superimposed architectural strata.

The Old Register, however, is also important for another reason. ‘Visible’ architecture attests to the survival of elements. But the Old Register also tells us about those realities which are no longer visible – projects that were only partially carried out, or not at all, or were subsequently radically altered. In this sense, the register stands, above all, in relation to the totality of the archive, that is to the historical totality of Peterhouse, as a piece of history which is both concrete and ideal.

We therefore have an extraordinary opportunity to return to the invisible from the visible, from the object to its context, from evidence to hypothesis, from an archaeological find to a historical reconstruction. In short, from a description of the data to an understanding of the process behind it. The presence of French in Cambridge during the Middle Ages is precisely something that goes beyond the material evidence offered by the collections as we see them today. It is something that must be reconstructed.


Deep into the margin

But what was the true presence of French in Cambridge in the Middle Ages? How can we study its relation to the framework of university life? What are the similarities and differences with regard to other contexts, such as Oxford? How do the register, the archive and the manuscript collection of Peterhouse help us to reconstruct this presence?

As in all major English scholarly centres, for the entirety of the fourteenth century and even beyond, French and in broader terms French culture, both insular and continental, came to define specific portions of Cambridge. We can easily document practical usage, especially in the administrative and juridical fields, in the everyday life of the Colleges; equally, we can document a certain continuing prestige associated with it.

Switching from a practical dimension to an intellectual one, the circulation of scholars between Cambridge, Oxford and Paris was very active at the time and was often encouraged by the institutions themselves. Books circulated along with scholars, and those whose contents concerned continental French undoubtedly appealed also to many beyond the Channel. Casting a glance at the manuscript holdings of medieval Cambridge, we see that many manuscripts were produced by French workshops. Some of them were given as gifts, often sent directly from France. Some of the givers were involved in the foundation of Colleges at Cambridge. Others offered texts composed in France that circulated throughout erudite Europe – the case, for example, of the masterpieces of theologians of the Parisian schools such as Peter Lombard, Abelard and Thomas Aquinas. But the texts in question are — as was the norm for academic works — written in Latin.

That there are very few examples of texts, both insular and continental, written in French, in the Cambridge collections may surprise or not. In England, abbeys and cathedrals appear to have produced, copied, and preserved a great many more French vernacular texts, even secular or courtly ones, than might be found in contemporary collections at either Cambridge or Oxford.

French-language materials did not occupy a central position in Cambridge collections. The same can be said of the location of French texts within the manuscripts which do transmit them. Indeed, in almost all of the cases, they are attestations in liminal, transitional, or marginal positions, the paratext (as opposed to text): frontispieces, rubrics, colophons, glosses and commentaries. In other cases, we find ourselves dealing with occasional writings (as opposed to primary ones), that is texts that are neither part of the manuscript’s original intention nor of an overall reworking thereof. They are texts that have been copied or written in the remaining available spaces: on flyleaves, in columns not entirely filled with writing, in margins (as well as glosses, which can be part of the original project, but are often similarly occasional). For instance, James indicates in his catalogue the presence of ‘French and English notes’ in Peterhouse Ms. 215 (which entered the College collection in 1481), of ‘French charms and Flemish recipes’ in Peterhouse 217 (c.s.), of ‘ French and English glosses to Horace’ in Peterhouse Ms. 222 (added to the College Collection in 1472), and so forth. We have no exhaustive census of such texts, and James does not always give full details about them.


Peterhouse Ms. 201

Judging by what emerges from the surviving documentation, instances of manuscripts or codicological units entirely in French, whether continental or insular, are extraordinarily rare. If we restrict our search to only include literary manuscripts, to my knowledge we can only indicate one unique and certain example in all of Cambridge, that of Peterhouse Ms. 201, recorded in the Old Register as Liber in Gallicis.

Peterhouse MS 201, c. 1275–1300

Peterhouse MS 201, c. 1275–1300

It is a French late thirteenth-century copy of two epic poems (chansons de geste) belonging to the so-called ‘cycle of the rebel vassals’: Maugis d’Aigremont and Renaut de Montauban. It is an important witness for both texts, which ranks in the highest positions of the textual genealogy. The manuscript was given to the College by John Warkworth (c. 1425-1500, Master of Peterhouse from 1473 to his death in 1500). In 1481, he bequeathed 12 service books for chapel use and over 50 volumes and an astrolabe for the library. Before coming to Cambridge, Warkworth was the chaplain of William Grey, Bishop of Ely, a humanist with strong ties to Italy and to Aquitaine. Jacques Thomas observed that Grey’s brother, John, probably possessed another of the few extant witnesses of Renaut de Montauban: Oxford, Bodleian Library, Ms. Laud. misc. 637, copied in Paris in 1333.

Panel painting of John Warkworth, c. 1425-1500, Peterhouse

Panel painting of John Warkworth, c. 1425-1500, Peterhouse

How this manuscript might have been read, assuming it attracted the attention of the Fellows, remains difficult to say. Perhaps it is merely an unusual specimen, included for antiquarian reasons in Warkworth’s collection, which furthermore manifests more than one surprising element. The history of Cambridge is often a matter of incongruous or anachronistic pieces, of ‘others’ that are slowly inserted into the general context until they become one with the homogeneous whole. I believe that this manuscript, in its isolated form, perfectly represents the yet-to-be investigated issue of the presence of literature in French in Cambridge during the late Middle Ages.


Peterhouse 190

A complementary line of investigation is to ask ourselves whether Cambridge collections include Latin or vernacular works in a relation of paternity and/or filiation with literary French texts.

For instance, there is no trace in Cambridge medieval collections of Benoît de Sainte-Maure’s Roman de Troie, one of the masterpieces of twelfth century production of the Plantagenet intellectual environment, with a wide circulation across Europe. However, we have evidence of the presence of both of Benoît’s main models: Dictys Cretensis’ Ephemeris Belli Troiani and Dares Phrygius, De Excidio Troiae Historia, two major sources of medieval knowledge about the war of Troy, at a time when Homer was known mainly through epitomised versions. Moreover, we have attestations in medieval Cambridge of several copies of Guido delle Colonne’s Historia destructionis Troiae, which is largely based on Benoît’s romance and also on Wace’s Roman de Brut, another text written in the context of the Plantagenet court. One of them is the opening text (ff. 1ra-55ra; Northern Italy, XIV c.) of Ms. Peterhouse 173, a composite miscellany recorded in the 1418 catalogue (part of the Old Register) as Librum rethorice, part of a 1414 bequest from John Newton, who had been Master of Peterhouse between 1382-97.

Similarly, Cambridge book lists and inventories record no copy of the Anglo-Norman Roman de Brut, but they include specimina of its main source, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae and of texts that are certainly inspired by it. For instance, another manuscript included among those given by Warkworth, now Ms. 190, contains two chronicles written in English and copied by different hands probably around 1480 for, or even by, Fellows of Peterhouse. The second chronicle was traditionally attributed to Warkworth himself, even if in more recent times scholars think this attribution to be insufficiently grounded. The first text is a late and composite version of the so-called ‘Brut Chronicle’ (ca. 1450-1475). In this case as well, it is necessary to go beyond documentary evidence in order to map the presence and influence of medieval French literature on Cambridge collections.

Peterhouse MS 190, c.1480

Peterhouse MS 190, c.1480

Selected bibliography

Paul Meyer’s surveys of medieval French text in Cambridge libraries appeared in Romania 8 (1979), on St John’s; 15 (1886), on the University Library; 32 (1903) on Trinity; 36 (1907) on Gonville and Caius. That of Corpus Christi was never published (M.R. James’ catalogue came out in 1912). On Meyer’s missions, see also Nigel Wilkins, Catalogue des manuscrits français de la bibliothèque Parker (Parker Library), Corpus Christi College Cambridge (Cambridge: Parker Library Publications, 1993), pp. 2-4. If I am not mistaken, none of the Mss studied by Meyer was already in Cambridge during the Middle Ages.

Up-to-date and excellent tools to start investigating French manuscripts in Cambridge collections are the catalogues Western Illuminated Manuscripts: A Catalogue of the Collection in Cambridge University Library, edited by Paul Binski and Patrick Zutshi with the collaboration of Stella Panayotova (Cambridge: CUP, 2011) and Illuminated Manuscripts in Cambridge: a Catalogue of Western Illumination in the Fitzwilliam Museum and the Cambridge Colleges. Part Four. The British Isles: Volume One, Insular and Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts, edited by Nigel Morgan and Stella Panayotova with the assistance of Rebecca Rushforth (London: Harvey Miller, 2013); the volumes specifically dedicated to France are forthcoming.

On the history of Cambridge collections, most of the introductions and notes that M.R. James wrote for his catalogues are still essential. On medieval Cambridge libraries and book collections, see Peter D. Clarke, The University and College Libraries of Cambridge, with an introduction by Roger Lovatt (London: British Library, 2002) [Corpus of British Medieval Library Catalogues n. 10]. Rodney M. Thompson is preparing the new descriptive catalogue of Peterhouse Western Medieval manuscripts. Peterhouse will be the first college of Cambridge to benefit from a second-generation catalogue, that is a catalogue that revises and updates that of M.R. James, still useful and usefully reprinted by CUP in 2009 with an essay on the history of the library by John W. Clark; see also Roger W. Lovatt, ‘The first century of the college library’, Peterhouse Record (1983-84), pp. 60-73. On the Old Register of Peterhouse and Peterhouse collection, cf. Clarke, The University and College Libraires, cit., pp. 443-558.

Ms. Peterhouse 201 has been described and edited several times, first by Ferdinand Castets in his edition of Maugis d’Aigremont, chanson de geste. Texte publié d’après le manuscrit de Peterhouse et complété à l’aide des manuscrits de Paris et de Montpellier (Montpellier: Camille Coulet, 1893). See part. Clarke, The University and College Libraries, UC48.456; L’episodio di Vaucouleurs nelle redazioni in versi del “Renaut de Montauban”. Edizione diplomatico interpretiva con adattamento sinottico a cura di Antonella Negri (Bologna: Pàtron, 1996), pp. 24-6 and 147-204; Renaut de Montauban. Édition critique du manuscrit Douce par Jacques Thomas, Genève, Droz, 1989, pp. 180-1; L’épisode ardennais de Renaut de Montauban. Édition synoptique des versions rimées, edited by Jacques Thomas (Bruges: De Tempel, 1962), t. I, pp. 108-16.

On Ms. Peterhouse 173, see Clarke, The University and College Libraries, UC48.219a (main hand, 1418) = UC149.14 (who cites a 1936 MA thesis by N.E. Griffin with edition of the text) and James, Catalogue, pp. 200-1.

On Ms. Peterhouse 190, see Clarke, The University and College Libraries, UC48.442. For codicological description and bibliography, see the Imagining History Project.





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